Saturday, January 30, 2010

Scraps and Bits

Thursday afternoon I heard for the first time an alto saxophone played like a woodwind, in a work for sax and piano by Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000). Born in Frankfurt-am-Maine, Germany, Heiden studied music composition under Paul Hindemith. He emigrated from Nazi Germany to the United States in 1935, and was naturalized as an American citizen in 1942. The work I heard was called Diversion. It displayed the qualities described by Nicolas Slonimsky of Heiden's music: "impeccable formal balance and effective instrumentation."

I have been listening to Quatour Ebène play string quartets by Debussy, Faurè and Ravel. The CD was a  wonderful gift from W. The French quartet comprises four good-looking young men, who pose like a boy band on the CD cover. The subtlety of French music is a welcomed relief from my German and Russian favorites. A tall cool drink with a dash of what might be lemon.


Just joined PEN American Center as an associate member last week, for its searchable database on poetry contests, but also for "protecting free expression and celebrating literature." International PEN was founded in 1921 as a direct response to "the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War." I do like PEN's international focus, symbolized by its popular World Voices lit fest. I hope to publish enough soon to apply to be a professional member.

With membership came their journal for writers and readers, Pen America. One loose-leaf sheet of paper printed the 224 characters that earned Liu Xiaobo 11 years in a Chinese prison. Jeffrey Yang translated three of Liu's poems that appear in the journal. "Longing to Escape," addressed to Liu's wife from prison, ends:

your toes will not break
a cat closes in behind
you, I want to shoo him away
as he turns his head, extends
a sharp claw toward me
deep within his blue eyes
there seems to be a prison
if I blindly step out
of with even the slightest
step I'd turn into a fish


On the other loose-leaf sheet of paper, a Persian/Farsi protest poem devised by Iranian protesters who took to the streets in June after the presidential elections. "The slogan refers directly to an insult levied at protesters by current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who referred to them as khas-o-khaashaak, meaning dirt and dust, scraps and bits. The structure of this slogan (I am/you are) recalls a ghazal included in the collection Divaan-eh Shams by Rumi, the classic 13th century Persian poet...."

Aan kha o khaashaak to'i, past tar az khaak to'i,
Shoor manam, noor manam, aashegheg ranjoor manam,
Zoor to'i, koor to'i, haaleyeh bi noor to'i,
Daleereh bi baak manam, maalekeh in khaak manam!

PEN's Translation Slam showcases the art of translation by juxtaposing in a public forum two "competing" translations of a single work. The slogan translated:

You are worthless, you are waste, you are baser than dirt.
I am life, I am light, the lover with a grieving heart.
You are tyranny, you are blind, you are the halo without light.
I am brave, I am bold, I am the lord of this land.
(Translated by Sassan Tabatabai)

You're just riffraff, lower than dirt,
I'm the aching lover, blazing and lit.
You're the black halo, oppressive and blind.
I'm the brave hero and this land is mine!
(Translated by Niloufar Talebi)

I don't know Farsi but for my money Talebi's translation, as an English poem, wins hands-down.


Mike Geffner's Inspired Word reading has moved from a restaurant in Forrest Hills, Queens, to swanky digs, Le Poisson Rouge, in Greenwich Village, along Bleecker. The specially designed space "serves art and alcohol." It marries night club vibe and artsy frisson. I heard Hilary Hahn play Bach there when W. visited. Last night, four slam poets, including B Young and Kelly Tsai, took the stage. B Young was the most accomplished performer of the four, but Kelly took the prize for the brainiest. The reading takes place two Fridays of a month.

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